The Illusion of Choice

ImOut

Unless I’m misreading how people feel about the gaming industry’s economic climate, they’re sick to death of microtransactions and DLC. However, instead of rallying against these business models, folks are opening their wallets, and I can’t for the life of me understand why they’re not seeing the forest through the trees. The average consumer should be ashamed of how often they’ve fallen for the carrot-on-a-stick routine… but I guess from their perspective, ignorance is bliss. While that’s okay for some, I’m the kind of guy that would rather be bummed by knowledge than be oblivious to what’s going on. But unfortunately, consumer complacency reigns supreme, and some recent headlines have brought to light a new business model which hopes to further exploit that. And what is it? The illusion of choice.

First, let’s talk about Sony.

They’re taking a proactive approach to consumer grumblings. Instead of allowing minor complaints to fester into nasty headlines, they’re finding creative ways to appease their audience. That said, Sony’s peace offerings have been rather inadequate.

PS+ has changed a great deal since the initial launch, but much of the good will it’s garnered comes from a single perk: ‘Free’ AAA games. We’re talking Infamous 2, Bioshock Infinite, Demon’s Souls, Uncharted 3, Shadow of the Colossus, Batman: Arkham Asylum, Dead Space 3, and the list goes on.

Have gamers been spoiled? Perhaps, but Sony implemented this strategy to combat the multiplayer paywall known as Xbox Live. But that’s lost on them nowadays. They, too, have shackled multiplayer behind the bars of subscription fees, and those ‘free’ titles have devolved into an eighth generation indie-thon. Not that indie titles are bad, but it’s not what PS+ subscribers have been conditioned to expect.

I don’t think anybody expected Sony to give us retail games in the PS4’s first year. If they did, they were naive and just looking for a reason to bitch. Why would they cannibalize sales just to satisfy a few loose-lipped idiots on the net? But now after two years in this generation, we have yet to see so much as a launch title on the program. Are Killzone and Knack REALLY still selling enough copies to warrant their exclusion from PS+? I doubt it. Hell, even Microsoft – who, by the way, are still losing money per console sold (once taking research, development, and marketing into consideration) – have given Gold subscribers Tomb Raider and Rayman Legends. So, what gives?

This means the value of PS+ is plummeting, regardless of whether consumers care to perceive it that way or not. The promise behind this program, specifically in regards to the Playstation 4, was to strengthen both their servers and quality of ‘free’ content, while enhancing their community-based features.

I’d argue they haven’t done that.

Their servers are weaker than their (direct) competition. The quality of ‘free’ games have gone downhill. Their community-based features are nearly non-existent… unless you count clicking the ‘thumbs up’ button on a game or app a ‘community feature’.

And little by little, people have taken notice. So, Sony have invited PS+ subscribers to collectively vote for one of three indie titles… which is smart. VERY smart. When you give your customers the power of choice, they feel appreciated and shower you with good will. But in the business world, very few – if any – decisions are made with our best interest in mind. This vote was manufactured to extract good will, and more importantly, make people forget the ‘where’s our AAA’ discussion. And unfortunately, if the comments I’ve seen can act as a decent barometer, it worked. People don’t get that this was a diversionary tactic. They’d rather believe Sony are gracious and altruistic.

Deus-Ex-pre-order-1080x671

The next headline that fits in with this ‘illusion of choice’ theme, is the recently unveiled Deus Ex: Mankind Divided ‘Augment Your Pre-Order’ program.

Pre-order exclusives have plagued this industry for a long time. Publishers have held content for ransom unless you’ve promised to buy their products sight unseen, and when you do, you’re STILL missing out because of retailer specific pre-order exclusives. “Buy it in advance, FROM US, or fuck you.” That’s the gist.

How much worse could it possibly get?

How about Kickstarter-inspired reward tiers based on pre-order numbers? The more people that pre-order, the more content they’ll get! Isn’t that GREAT?!

So, let’s break down why this sucks major donkey dick:

Kickstarter is meant to fund projects that wouldn’t exist without some financial help. But Square Enix and Eidos Montreal aren’t doing this to bring a passion project to life, but to sucker people into a ‘buy before you try’ agreement.

It doesn’t matter if you’re a loyal fan of the franchise, either. If enough people don’t pre-order, these companies are basically going to punish you and say, “Too bad, so sad. You should have told all your friends to pre-order, too.”

Now, pre-order DLC usually consists of cosmetic items, but the third tier for Mankind Divided features an in-game mission.

Last but certainly not least, three of the five tiers force you to choose between one piece of content over another. That means there’s no possible way to acquire all the extra goodies in the ‘Augment Your Pre-Order’ program… unless you feel like buying multiple copies..

Of course, the whole idea of ‘Augment Your Pre-Order’ isn’t meant to make you feel like you’re being raped by the anal splitting cock of a minotaur. No, it’s supposed to make you feel like you’re in control of your own destiny.

Well, whoopy-fuckin’-doo.

All gamers really want is to get a complete game at the complete price. But is there an option for that? Of course there isn’t. And why? Because ‘fuck you’. That’s why.

The ‘choose your own rewards’ mantra, much like ‘vote for your next PS+ game’, is little more than marketing bullshit to make you forget how hard you’re being screwed. I sincerely hope consumers are wise enough to tell Square Enix and Eidos Montreal to shove it up their ass. If that message isn’t delivered loud-and-clear, make no doubt about it: We WILL see more of this. A LOT more.

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A POS Still Doesn’t Deserve DDoS

PSNXboxLiveDDOS

 

Over the holidays, I had a pretty decent time with gaming. I plowed through The Witcher 2 (Xbox 360), and thanks to my acquisition of the Retron 5, I’ve also been able to get my fill of nostalgic retro goodness. That said, not everyone had such an enjoyable experience in the last week of December. No, both Xbox Live and PSN suffered from a bit of downtime, but one service took a much greater hit than the other.

Care to guess which?

I checked Twitter on Christmas Eve, only to be greeted by a massive text-wall of confusion. People were tweaking because they couldn’t log in to PSN, and it wasn’t long before Xbox Live subscribers echoed similar complaints. Of course, any time there’s so much as a hint of service interruption nowadays, the collective knee-jerk reaction is to assume it’s been caused by DDoS attacks.

While 2014 was undoubtedly the year such attacks have attained widespread awareness, I’ve been careful not to make assumptions based on internet rumblings. Don’t get me wrong: I know we’ve been directly affected by these attacks on multiple occasions, and there were probably numerous others we weren’t affected by… but I can’t help but question the pattern I’ve noticed on social media.

These attackers almost never make preemptive threats. No, instead, we see a network go down, and when a bunch of people on Twitter begin to question why, THAT’S when someone steps up and says, “Oh yeah, dawgz, that was us!!!11!!!!1!1!” At this point, a number of so-called hackers will attempt to take credit for the same attacks… you know, to prove who has the biggest wiener. So, you’ll have to excuse me for not believing every 12 year old on the net who claims to be the cause of a service outage.

And by the way, I said ‘so-called hackers’ because regardless of how much power they want us to THINK they have, it’s little more than a ruse. You see, nothing is actually hacked in a DDoS. In fact, the words behind the acronym tell us as much: Distributed Denial of Service. It’s an attack that’s designed to create a bottleneck which keeps legitimate traffic from getting through. It’s a major friggin’ annoyance, yes, but certainly not a hack.

Anyway, the ‘attack now, take credit later’ pattern I noted was actually broken in early December. Yes, weeks before the jolly fat man in red suede was set to violate our chimneys, a group – who I refuse to name, lest I give them the attention they crave – threatened to take Xbox Live down on Christmas… FOREVER. With this in mind, I remained vigilant in my skepticism. I mean, you don’t have to be Nostradamus to predict both Xbox Live and PSN would suffer outages on Christmas, do you?

Tons of new consoles would connect to their respective service for the first time. The millions who already own these machines would log in to play their new games. The end result was practically written on the wall.

So, when I noticed both PSN and Xbox Live were straight noping-out on Christmas Eve, I thought, “It’s a tad early for this to happen… but maybe not. A lot of people celebrate with one side of their family on the 24th.” Of course, it wasn’t long before ‘they who shall not be named’ hopped on Twitter to take credit for the down time. Still, I wanted to see how things played out before reaching any conclusions.

Well, Xbox Live came back in just under half a day, albeit with some restrictions… but PSN? Down for DAYS. After a good long while, Sony finally stated their network was suffering from a service disruption attack. With confirmation of DDoS attacks straight from the source, I could finally begin to assess the situation.

First and foremost, why disrupt these services in the first place?

One motive was to deter people from ignoring their families on Christmas… but, uh, that doesn’t really explain the various other attacks throughout the entirety of 2014.

No, their primary motivation was to expose the lack of security put forth by Microsoft and Sony. After all, these companies are charging $50+ a year for access to multiplayer. ‘They’ didn’t believe these companies were utilizing our money to enhance security. So, they’ve chosen to ‘enlighten’ consumers by crippling Xbox Live and PSN, the message being, “It was easy for us to take these services down, and that should concern you. You’re not getting what you think you’re paying for. Stop giving in to these greedy corporations!”

This line of reasoning sounds fine on paper, but is flat out STUPID in reality. The only surefire ‘cure’ against a DDoS is to have unlimited bandwidth, and needless to say, that’s just not possible. Money can be spent on better mitigation, yes, but that’s about it. The only real problem here are the idiots doing this from their basements for little more than shits and giggles…

…Or is it?

This fiasco DID expose one company as being far less prepared to mitigate attacks than the other: Sony.

It was difficult to bitch about down time on the PS3. After all the service was free, so you weren’t actually losing anything. But with the PS4, Sony decided to throw multiplayer behind the PS+ pay wall, with the promise they’d use that money to better the network.

In an interview with computerandvideogames.com:

Yoshida explained the move was necessary to maintain a high quality service and facilitate improvements and expansions.

“That’s (was) a big decision,” he said. “what we internally discussed and decided is that we will continue the free access to online play on PS3 and Vita, so that’s clear. But because on PS4 the online connectivity features such as second screen, auto downloads and share features – these are one big pillar of the PS4 experience and we will continue to invest in this area to expand and improve these online features and services.

“If we keep giving away online access for free, the natural pressure is that we have to cut down on the cost to provide this free service. But that’s conflicting with our goal of being able to provide very robust and great online services going forward. So we decided that on PS4, because we want to continue to invest and improve our new services, we’ve asked the most engaged consumers in the online activities to share the burden with us so that we can continue to invest.”

Well, they’re not living up to their end of the bargain.

So how are Sony planning to make amends with their customers? What would their peace offering be? A five day extension for PS+ members, and a ‘10% off anything on PSN’ coupon.

I’m sorry, but that’s just not good enough. PSN was down quite a bit last year. I know, I know. It seems like ancient history, right? But honestly, PSN’s lack of stability has been in question throughout most of 2014, especially after the significant DDoS attack in August. You’d think Sony would have said, “Woah, we need to figure this shit out, and pronto!” But, no. To be fair, both networks are still having issues, but the stark contrast between Xbox Live’s and PSN’s recovery time should be telling.

I won’t apologize if this sounds like hyperbole, but Sony clearly doesn’t care. They’ve suckered millions – including myself – into getting PS+… and then nothing. Just a bunch of blanket PR statements like, “Gee guys, sorry. We’re looking into it. Thank you for your patience and continued support.”

Clearly, all they care about is making money, because while PSN suffers, Sony have decided to invest in a new revenue generating service… and guess who’s footing the bill? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, the company that’s allegedly ‘for the players’ would rather spend our cash on a glorified rental service – a pricey one, at that – instead of improving the one we, the loyal players, have spent our money to support. Oh, and if that wasn’t a big enough kick in the teeth for our ‘loyalty’, guess what else? PS Now will also be available on NON-Sony devices in 2015.

For the players, indeed.

With each passing month, Sony manages to rank higher on my anti-consumer shit list. But let me be clear: While I believe they’re a terrible company, that in no way means I believe they ‘got what was coming to them’. It’s nice to FINALLY see a bit of awareness in regards to Sony’s terrible service, but the end doesn’t justify the means. Not one bit.

So what’s the answer? I just said it: Awareness. Hacker wannabes can pretend they’re doing right by us all day long, but their ultimate failure is taking away the most powerful tool that we, as consumers, have at our disposal: Choice. It’s as the old saying goes: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Similarly, gamers need to be armed with knowledge that will allow them to make informed decisions… NOT shuffled around like pawns on a Chess board.

In the end, that’s what these DDoS attacks are all about; change via force, and that’s a major copout. Sony obviously have some MAJOR security issues to iron out – again, better DDoS mitigation is required, and it’s scary to think they’re STILL experiencing major security breaches (think of the month they had to shut PSN down a few years ago, as well as alleged retaliation from North Korea over ‘The Interview’) – but retaliation is NEVER the answer. Who does it help, really? Did it help the people who spent $50, or more, for their PS+ or Xbox Live memberships? Did it help the families who spent hundreds of dollars on a new console for their children? Did it help the families of Sony and Microsoft employees who were undoubtedly called back in to work? Of course not.

The attackers weren’t wise enough to know that forcing ideologies on people rarely works, and when it does, history is doomed to repeat itself. The only way to institute change is through knowledge, meaning we have to keep our eyes, ears, mouths, and minds OPEN. Read articles. Talk with friends. Participate in message board discussions. Every little bit helps, you know? It’s obviously easier to default to the ‘one person can’t make a change’ mentality, but if I believed that were true, Byte-Size Impressions wouldn’t exist. I challenge gamers to keep fighting the good fight. It’s an uphill battle, yes, but not impossible.

Opinion-Bytes: Sony’s Driveflub

Driveflub

I remember the day that Sony announced the Playstation 4, and vividly, at that.  They came out with a consumer friendly machine, $100 less than the competition at that, and… say whaaaa?!  They slipped multiplayer behind a PSPlus pay wall?  Sighs.  I wasn’t happy about being bent over a barrel, so to speak, but I didn’t feel I had much choice but to sit there, hope Sony’s ‘entry’ would be gentle, and take it.  I wasn’t going into the next generation of gaming without multiplayer.  I just wasn’t… and they knew it.  Ah well.  At least they promised to use that additional revenue to improve the service.

In an interview with  Computerandvideogames.com:

Yoshida explained the move was necessary to maintain a high quality service and facilitate improvements and expansions.
 
“That’s (was) a big decision,” he said. “what we internally discussed and decided is that we will continue the free access to online play on PS3 and Vita, so that’s clear. But because on PS4 the online connectivity features such as second screen, auto downloads and share features – these are one big pillar of the PS4 experience and we will continue to invest in this area to expand and improve these online features and services.
 
“If we keep giving away online access for free, the natural pressure is that we have to cut down on the cost to provide this free service. But that’s conflicting with our goal of being able to provide very robust and great online services going forward. So we decided that on PS4, because we want to continue to invest and improve our new services, we’ve asked the most engaged consumers in the online activities to share the burden with us so that we can continue to invest.”

Unfortunately, PSN is still very much the quirky experience that was provided on the PS3.  It seems to work more often than not, but more and more, we’re seeing the service go down for one reason or another.  Of course, these minor interruptions were somewhat acceptable on the PS3.  After all, multiplayer was free, and in a way, something of a privilege.  People are PAYING for this service on the PS4 though, so it’s no longer a privilege.  No, customers pay for it, and when customers pay for something, they expect it to work.

And it’s not as if Sony can just say, “Well, that’s multiplayer for you!  Anything can go wrong at any time.  It’s the nature of the beast!”  They can’t say that because Microsoft’s service is, and always has been much more stable.  A lot of people like to say, “Well, yeah, because Microsoft is a software company.”  Does that really matter, though?  If you provide a paid service, it needs to work.  Constantly.  It doesn’t matter if said service comes from a staff of 3 or 3,000… people will settle for nothing less than consistency.

Anyway, even though Sony had everyone by the brass with their pay wall shenanigans, they wanted to ensure the masses saw this as ‘value’ instead of extortion.  So, they got out the ol’ stick, tied a carrot to the end of it, and dangled it where everyone could see:  Evolution Studios were going to provide their next AAA driver to PS+ subscribers free of cost… well, most of it.  ‘Rushy’, a developer with Evolution, had this to say on NeoGaf:

Rushy’s NeoGaf post

“You can earn the platinum trophy in the PS+ Edition, remember its the full game minus a few cars/tracks.”

Of course, the game was delayed, and it’s been a sore spot with the gaming community ever since.  Certain people went a little overboard with their ‘give me free stuff now’ attitude, but there’s no sense in blaming consumers for feeling duped.  I mean, Sony and Evolution worked together in SOME capacity to soften the blow of PS+ as a pay wall… and then the game wasn’t ready.  More than that, there were some pretty egregious PR blunders that followed.

One such example was the digital upgrade fiasco.  Via Twitter, Joshua Hood (@joshlhood) asked Shuhei Yoshida – President of Sony Computer Entertainment – “(would there) be a discounted package to upgrade to the full game?”  Yoshida confirmed this would be the case, and sure enough, news broke that a digital upgrade would cost $50 instead of the usual $60… but according to the official Playstation blog:

Playstation Blog:

“This will give you access to all five locations, 55 tracks, 50 cars and all 50 tour events, as long as your PlayStation Plus subscription remains active.”

That’s right.  If you were to opt for a slightly discounted version of Driveclub, it would only remain playable as long as your PS+ account was active.  Keep in mind that discounts via PS+ have NEVER worked this way.  Once you buy a game, you own it.  Period.  Fortunately, gamers told Sony and Evolution ‘no thanks’ and the issue was resolved.

But wait, there’s more:

2-panel-its-free-l “One of the recurring questions we keep seeing is about the scale of the Playstation Plus Edition.  The simple answer is that with an active Playstation Plus subscription, you can download Driveclub Playstation Plus Edition, which comes with one location (India), 11 tracks, 10 cars and access to all game modes.

11 tracks and 10 cars?  Does that even come close to Rushy’s promise of ‘the full game minus a few cars/tracks’?  44 tracks and 40 cars… that’s how much the PS+ edition is leaving off the table.  I know some of you are probably saying, “Look, regardless of how much content you’re getting, it’s free.  How can anyone complain about something they’re getting for ‘free’?”  Again – and I hate to sound like a broken record here – this goes back to the idea that ‘free Driveclub’ was used to soften the blow of Sony locking multiplayer behind subscriptions.  Regardless of intent, this whole thing turned out to be little more than a terrible case of bait-and-switch.  Let’s break it down:

Sony locks multiplayer behind a pay wall, but uses Driveclub as an added incentive for joining PS+.  Millions of people purchased the PS4 and a PS+ sub to go with it… and then Sony and Evolution said, “Sorry, did we say free game?  What we MEANT was you’d receive a glorified demo…”

But wait, there’s even more:

On October 7th, Driveclub finally saw its launch after a nearly year-long delay.  Unfortunately, the multiplayer component – the very crux of the game – just wasn’t working.  There were intermittent connection issues which only intensified as time went on.  As a result, the PS+ edition of Driveclub was canceled ‘indefinitely’.  A number of people tried to justify this as day 1 multiplayer woes – which shouldn’t be ‘a thing’, let alone an expectation – but something was clearly amiss when things didn’t get better on days 2, 3, 4, and so on.

Oh, and customers for a refund from Sony were flat-out denied.  “Hi, Sony.  I bought Driveclub the other day, but it’s defective and the devs have no clue how long it’s going to take before these issues are resolved.  I’d like a refund so I can purchase a different game that works.”  In what universe is it okay for Sony to say, “Nope, sorry.  No refunds.”?

On October 12th via Twitter, Rushy (@Rushy33) broke the silence to respond to some inquiries:

“We’ve got no limits to the amount of servers or the quality of hardware, it’s purely down to server code having bugs.”  In regards to some sort of compensation, his only response was, “We’re considering all of our options right now.”  It was later clarified that early adopters could receive (some) free DLC, but resolving their server bug(s) is, obviously, their current priority.

I think it’s safe to call this the worst next-gen game launch since Battlefield 4.  I also can’t help but wonder if people behind-the-scenes knew about these issues beforehand.  I mean, between the retail release and the free PS+ version, they should have anticipated MILLIONS of people raking their servers over the coals… and yet, they couldn’t even accommodate their paying customers?  As of this writing – October 15th – the game still isn’t 100%, and there’s no answer as to when the game will be fixed or when people can expect to play the (gimped) PS+ edition.

But in a way, I’m glad this happened.  Not because I hate Sony or anything nefarious like that.  I actually own both an Xbox One and PS4, and for obvious reasons, Sony’s black box is my primary gaming machine.  That said, I’ve been saying for MONTHS how Sony have done virtually nothing to keep getting, or even maintain the amount of good will they had before their console launched last November.  We’re still missing certain features that were promised at the time of its reveal, they haven’t done much in the way of optimizing their multiplayer service, and this ‘Driveflub’ is just another mark on a long list of promises that haven’t been met… and people are finally coming around.  THAT’S why I’m glad this happened.

And just to speculate a little, I wouldn’t put it past Sony to tell Evolution Studios, “Guys, you’re not going to delay this game again.  We’d, like, look totally bad if we did.  So, do whatever you have to.  What’s that?  The dynamic weather system won’t be done until November or December?  Well, take it out of the game for now, and when it’s ready, patch it in and call it ‘free DLC’.  People LOVE feeling like you’re giving them free stuff!”

Anyway, I was going to buy Driveclub, but this horrific launch chased me over to the other racing game which was released only a week prior:  Forza Horizon 2, and it’s fuuuuuun.  Not only is it fun, but it’s well polished and everything works the way it’s supposed to.  As far as blind buying Driveclub… well, I don’t see that happening anytime soon.  First and foremost, its issues need to be addressed, and even then, I’m going to wait until I can try the ‘demo’ before making a decision.  I know there are a lot of people that don’t have an Xbox One, so picking up Forza Horizon 2 isn’t a viable solution for them.  That said, don’t send the message to Sony or Evolution that everything that transpired is okay.  At the very least, this game shouldn’t receive consumer support until it’s working the way the developers intended.

Sony and Evolution Studios, here’s what it all boils down to:  If you promise something to consumers, they’re going to remember.  Don’t pull a bait-and-switch even if it’s unintentional.  Last but certainly not least, games need to work.  If you had to delay the game another few weeks or so, yes, you’d catch a lot of crap… but so what?  The backlash over this ordeal is likely going to cost Evolution some fans, and, well, I think people are finally coming to realize that while Sony makes great hardware, they’re not the most reliable company around.